Saturday, February 20, 2010

Poland's big chance

This is the English version of my most recent column for Wprost
Poland leads. Who will follow?

Europe’s new foreign policy is somewhere between tragedy and farce. Lady Ashton, who is meant to be in charge of it, is arousing a mixture of ridicule and astonishment. She is still commuting from London to Brussels, fails to turn up to important meetings, has yet to gain the necessary security clearance and turns her mobile phone off at eight o’clock in the evening. Meanwhile the Spanish government is pretending that the Lisbon treaty has never happened and that national governments still run the European Union on the basis of a rotating presidency. Nobody is in charge. Nothing is happening. It is not surprising that Barack Obama has found something else to do instead of turning up to the planned EU-US summit in May.

The vacuum in Brussels is a big chance for Poland. Next year, the EU presidency will be held first by Hungary and then Poland (with Denmark taking over for the first half of 2012). Given that the Spanish presidency is proving a disaster, and that low-key Belgium is in charge for the second half of this year, that means that Poland is the only big country running the EU until Italy takes over in 2014.

The first priority for Poland is to coordinate its efforts with Hungary. That is well under way. Poland is supporting the “Danube strategy” and Hungary’s plans for greater energy security. In return, Hungary will support Polish efforts to boost the EU’s defence capability. For 24 months, either Hungary or Poland or both will be in the “Troika” of countries in charge of the Union.

Poland is already becoming a diplomatic heavyweight in Europe. The Kaczynski era of grotesque stunts and blunders is receding into the past. Poland’s economic growth makes the country stand out and gives people like Donald Tusk, Jacek Rostowski and Radek Sikorski added weight in international meetings.

The best example right now comes from Moldova, the poorest country in Europe and one where we are in danger of missing a huge chance to improve things. After a messy and contested election, accompanied by plenty of official brutality, Moldovans booted out their corrupt authoritarian communist rulers and elected a pro-Western, pro-reform government under the leadership of the professorial Vlad Filat. America has leapt in, giving him a warm reception in Washington DC and unblocking hundreds of millions of dollars in development aid.

America understands that Moldova matters: the unrecognised statelet of Transdniestria creates a sump of smuggling-based corruption for crooked politicians in Ukraine and elsewhere. Romania—which shares a language and history with Moldova—is now also playing a constructive role. But the absence of interest from the rest of Europe has been shameful.

Poland is the honourable exception. It is offering a $15m immediate bridging loan to help the cash-strapped government meet its commitments. Despite the impressive bureaucracy-busting reforms of the past 100 days, the economy remains stricken. Seasoned foreign officials who visit Moldova say it reminds them of Poland on the brink of the Balcerowicz reforms, or the Baltic states in the early 1990s. The problems are huge. But so are the possibilities.

Poland has plenty more to offer too: it understands the need to engage with the nomenklatura in Belarus, with seductive offers on the lines of “do you want your children to work in Brussels as equals or Moscow as slaves?”. It understands the need for deep strategic patience in dealing with Ukraine, and the need to provide a resolute, American-backed security guarantee to the Baltic states. The recent joint initiative on tactical nuclear weapons by Radek Sikorski and Carl Bildt struck just the right note: reasonable to western ears, but deeply tricky for the nuke-loving Russian leadership.

Big western countries like France and Germany may find it tiresome that the big ideas and bold leadership is coming from the east now. But they had better get used to it. They had their chance and we ended up with Lady Ashton. Now it’s Poland’s turn.


Catherine said...

Dear Mr Lucas

I understand that you have a lot of love for the post-communist countries of Europe and that you would like to see their political weight in the European Union increase. But there's one thing that we should not forget: 90% of EU-funding still comes from the old memberstates, only 10% comes from the new memberstates (2004 and 2007). Sure, Poland has much better highways then 10 years ago, but with whose money were they build? Sure, Warsaw metro looks much nicer than a lot of its Western European counterparts, but again, with whose money was it build?
Isn't it logical (from a realistic point of view, not idealistic) that the ones who pay the most have the most power? It has always been like that in the history of the EU, with France and Germany more powerfull than Belgium or Austria. Sure, Belgium got the president, but we know that real power lies elsewhere.
My idea is that the European Union at this moment in time is needed to bring the new memberstates on a Western European level of development. Now the post-communist countries and its supporters should be satisfied with all the (especially financial) opportunities they get. But I think that in twenty years time Poland has the right to become an important player in the European Union.

Anonymous said...

As a Brit living long-term in Poland, I welcome your article and hope that its Polish readership have taken note. I welcome it because of the very situation described by Catherine. Now is exactly the time for Poles to look hard at what democratic tools Europe does offer and to use them, and I am thinking of grassroots attitudes and actions and not just manuevering by politicians. Funding is one thing (and money is usually associated with power), but it does not need to be regarded as patronising, which tends to lead to resentment. Some young Poles do see Europe as a form of political empowerment, and that is why I am encouraging them to read your article, Edward.